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Upgrading Cedar Hill Middle School in Victoria, B.C., will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent.David Israelson/The Globe and Mail

It’s not easy being green at the best of times, but when it comes to renovating or building schools, it can be especially challenging to meet Canada’s climate-change goals.

In line with the federal government’s 2019 goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, school boards nationwide are now renovating existing buildings or starting new projects.

The goal is to build facilities that use less energy and rely on renewable, cleaner power sources rather than fossil fuels.

There are some early results. In Victoria, for example, 100-year-old Cedar Hill Middle School is in the midst of an upgrade that will reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 90 per cent.

But the Victoria rebuild, due to open in the fall of 2025, is still one of only a handful of environmentally friendly school building projects. A large part of the $46.5-million cost is being spent not on environmental improvements, but to make the structure safer from earthquakes.

School officials and developers say the challenges of reaching net zero are complicated. Builders and school boards alike must navigate different levels of government that often have different funding priorities, and the sheer cost of getting to net zero can also be formidable.

“If we’re going to reach net zero by 2050, we’re all going to need to do more, and that includes schools,” says Bala Gnanam, vice-president, sustainability, advocacy and stakeholder relations at BOMA Canada, a group representing the owners and operators of all types of buildings.

There seems to be a lot of “unnecessary bureaucracy” when it comes to funding environmental improvements, Mr. Gnanam says.

“There’s often funding available for basic maintenance, but it makes sense to use some of that money to retrofit buildings with new technologies that are more energy-efficient,” he says.

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Withrow Avenue Junior Public School is one of 33 Toronto District School Board schools that are particularly suited to measures such as switching from natural gas heating to heat exchange pumps.Thomas Bollmann/The Globe and Mail

That’s often easier said than done, says Richard Christie, senior manager, sustainability, at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

“For many years, in this province at least, the decision-making power over funding for buildings has rested not with the school boards, but with the Ministry of Education. Successive governments have centralized this control,” Mr. Christie says.

“To their credit, the ministry gives us money for repairs – there’s something like a $4.2-billion repair backlog and our funding [for 2022-23] was $292-million,” he says.

“The problem is that they expect us to use that money for ‘first costs’ – basic maintenance. That’s important, but it doesn’t leave room for long-term improvements that would be good for the environment and save money in the long run, such as improving energy efficiency,” Mr. Christie says.

“In many schools, most of the efficiencies can be found simply by updating the heating and cooling systems,” Mr. Gnanam adds. “We all need to focus more on this operational resilience – how can buildings be better prepared to manage the climate risks we face?”

If we’re going to reach net zero by 2050, we’re all going to need to do more, and that includes schools.

Bala Gnanam, vice-president, sustainability, advocacy and stakeholder relations, BOMA Canada

Currently, the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC) lists only one school in Canada as a certified net-zero school – Curé-Paquin Elementary School in Saint-Eustache, Que., which received its designation in 2019.

Other schools in different cities approach the net-zero target but are not quite there yet. University Highlands Elementary School in Burnaby, B.C., has achieved a LEED Gold standard, a designation in recognition of its reduced environmental footprint through measures such as high-efficiency heating and ventilation, good insulation and energy-efficient lighting.

The TDSB is involved in several projects that aim to bring its facilities closer to net zero, such as the Waterfront School at 635 Queens Quay W. in Toronto’s Central Waterfront Building, a space the board leases from the City of Toronto, and which is undergoing a renovation that will reduce energy use by 71 per cent and generate 83 per cent less greenhouse-gas emissions than it was emitting in 2015.

“We are tenants at the Waterfront School, but we have other carbon-reduction projects of our own that we’d like to undertake,” Mr. Christie says.

At the end of November, the TDSB’s Energy and Climate Action team will be presenting a report to the board identifying 33 schools in the district that would be good candidates for what it calls a “deep retrofit” of their energy systems.

The team has the results of a feasibility study it commissioned for retrofitting one school as a pilot project – Withrow Avenue Junior Public School in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood.

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The Waterfront School is in Toronto’s Central Waterfront Building, a space which is undergoing a renovation that will reduce energy use by 71 per cent.Thomas Bollmann/The Globe and Mail

A deep retrofit to Withrow would cost $3.8-million, providing a two-thirds reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 2015 levels, saving $34,000 a year in utility bills and giving the school much-needed new ceilings.

Withrow is one of 33 of the TDSB’s nearly 600 schools that are particularly suited to measures such as switching from natural gas heating to heat exchange pumps, Mr. Christie says.

“These 33 schools were built in the era of ‘live better electrically,’ when using electricity was encouraged. Then in the 1990s they were converted to gas, but they’re already built to standards that make them good for more modern, energy-efficient systems,” he says.

There are lots of other measures that schools, school boards and education ministries can take to reduce carbon emissions, Mr. Christie adds. For example, TDSB is working with Enbridge Gas in Toronto on an incentive program that lowers bills for schools that use 20 per cent less fuel.

In addition to lowering emissions, “the energy reductions in eight pilot schools under this program would reduce operating costs by $264,456 [a year],” he says.

Looking at everyday reductions like this is a good approach, says Michael Geller, a B.C.-based architect, developer and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Development.

School boards, provincial ministries and everyone else involved in funding repairs and maintenance should move away from short-term thinking, he explains.

“The big picture is whether or not we can really do something about climate change,” he says. “And what better place to start looking than at our schools?”

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